I just got a position as assistant professor in the USA. The university I am working at is one of the top 50, according to the U.S. News & World Report. I will be teaching and carrying out high-level research.

However I would love to attend a class in a discipline close to mine, to expand my knowledge. Surely I could read the book, but if I have a class to attend I will actually do it, while I will probably never be able to find the time to read the book. Would it be considered bad? Should I do it without mentioning it to anybody since it is in another department?


2 Answers 2


There's nothing bad about this; it's pretty common, especially for advanced graduate courses. You don't have to be secretive about it. But here are a few things to consider.

First, time. As a new assistant professor you are going to be busier than you ever imagined. Are you sure this is the best use of three hours a week? Keep in mind that taking this class isn't something that "counts" towards tenure, so the only career benefit for you would be if it helps improve your research productivity. Of course, if it's just something generally interesting to you that will make your life happier, that's a consideration too - but think about whether you can afford it.

Most people do this by "sitting in on" a class - you'd plan to attend the lectures, but normally you wouldn't turn in homework or take exams like a real student would, since that would create extra work for the instructor.

In all cases you should ask the course instructor for permission, by email or in person. "Hi, I'm Lupocci, I'm a new assistant professor in department X. I was wondering if it would be all right if I were to sit in on your course ABC 321. I have been meaning to learn more about this topic and this seems like a great opportunity to do it." Make sure there is available space and that you won't displace actual students.

You should ask the instructor how they would like you to participate in the class. Should you ask questions, participate in class discussions or activities, etc? Sit in the front or the back? There's a possibility for your presence to be distracting to the students, so you want to minimize that.

Some institutions might require you to formally register for the course as an auditing student, so check your regulations. Tuition would usually be waived, but you still might have to pay lab fees or something. At other places this sort of thing is done "off the books" as a professional courtesy between faculty. At still others, rules require you to register, but everyone ignores the rules and just does it off the books. So you might also ask your department chair or a senior colleague what the norms are.

Finally, as you take the class, be mindful that you don't interfere with the learning of the students. It might be tempting to ask lots of questions in class, bring up connections to things you are interested in, etc, but this may tend to derail the class, especially if the questions are too advanced to be useful to the students. This might also have the effect of intimidating students who worry that their questions are not as smart as yours. So you may have to stifle yourself in class. You could discuss things with the instructor outside of class, but try not to take up too much of their time either (see second paragraph).

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    In USA you are allow to take a course if you are not student?????
    – SSimon
    Commented Feb 17, 2017 at 15:40
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    @SSimon: Yes, if you are a faculty member at the same institution. Sometimes non-academic staff of the institution have this privilege also. As I said, you might be required to temporarily register as a student, but not necessarily. Commented Feb 17, 2017 at 16:15
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    @SSimon My public state university allows pretty much anyone to 'audit' courses, with the instructors permission and officially with a bit of paperwork. No need to be student, staff, or faculty of the university at all. No tuition, and no fees unless there's some material expense that would be imposed. Commented Feb 17, 2017 at 19:42
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    One of the tenure-track professors in my department used to attend a lot of the informal courses given by my advisor (and the situation is similar, since it was close, but not directly related to their research). They asked the most questions, and interrupted the most. And it was a welcomed change, as my advisor is one of those people that give you the feeling that you understand what's going on, until you realize you don't. By asking a lot of questions, everyone benefited and mistakes were caught in real time.
    – Ink blot
    Commented Feb 18, 2017 at 8:13
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    @Novelocrat - I take it back. I looked at several university's definitions of auditing and discovered that not all universities define auditing the same way. I looked at half a dozen -- a very small sample -- and found one that does not permit auditors to hand in any work or ask questions in class. The others I checked do permit normal participation and a couple require it. Commented Feb 18, 2017 at 15:57

Let me tell a story. I like stories, maybe you do too.

Once upon a time, there was a young German mathematician named... well, his name is irrelevant. Anyways, he revolutionized the fields of number theory and arithmetic geometry with his PhD thesis and subsequent work, and in March of this calendar year, there will be a conference (school?) dedicated to introducing and familiarizing people, whether they work in his field of number theory/arithmetic geometry or a related (but not too unrelated) one, with his work.

As such, many mathematics departments around the world this past Fall and Winter have had advanced graduate classes dedicated to introducing this young German mathematician's work and the preliminaries for understanding and circle of ideas surrounding his work.

I have heard that some of these advanced graduate classes were attended by quite a few postdocs/junior faculty, and in some cases, some senior faculty reared their heads. This stirred quite some gossip amongst the graduate students attending the classes.

So please feel welcome to attend the class you want to attend, keeping in mind some of Nate Eldredge's advice (especially the one about you having enough time).

I would argue that it is not necessary to ask for permission to sit in on the class, at least based on my experiences within math departments. But if you feel compelled to do so because of some silly antiquated conception of "respect", please do not do it over email. Seriously, I'm sure you're flooded with loads of email every single day. It never stops. Would you like another almost pointless email to read and respond to?

  • in europe, mostly these would be quite shocking and unimaginable.
    – SSimon
    Commented Feb 19, 2017 at 5:40
  • @SSimon - What do you mean when you say "mostly these"? // 1 More: "I would argue that it is not necessary" - I disagree. Out of professional courtesy, OP should politely let the instructor know if it is a formal audit (set up through the registrar); and politely request permission if it is an informal audit (= sitting in). Also, some professors would much rather get a one or two-line email than a knock on the office door. This is quite variable. Commented Feb 19, 2017 at 19:26
  • @aparente001 I support open classes and virtual upload of a lecture to website. However, In europe, it is quite uncommon to be visitor,
    – SSimon
    Commented Feb 20, 2017 at 2:51
  • @SSimon - I guess you mean it is rare to sit in on someone else's class? Commented Feb 20, 2017 at 3:44
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    @SSimon I'm European and I don't find this neither shocking nor unimaginable. Most of the faculties don't have any interest in attending someone else's lectures, but it's not unheard of. Moreover, in some countries like mine, with public universities, anyone is allowed to attend a university lecture without the need of being enrolled. Commented Apr 8, 2017 at 15:44

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